The Metaphor of the Sun in Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Fire MemeWhen Marcus Aurelius lay dying he turned to the guard of the night watch and said, cryptically, “Go to the rising sun; I am already setting.”¬† We can only speculate as to the meaning he intended.¬† For instance, it may have sounded to Romans as if he were alluding to the mystery religion of Mithraism or some other solar cult.¬† However, it’s fair to say, though, that consistent with his approach throughout The Meditations, he appears to be portraying death as a process both natural and inevitable, just like the setting of the sun.

As I reflected on the meaning of this remark, it struck me that there are several passages in The Meditations which refer to the mind of the wise man using the metaphor of sunlight and, apparently related to these, several additional references to the mind as a lamp or blazing fire, casting light on the objects of the world.  Indeed, according to their Physics, the Stoics believed that the intellect of man was composed of a subtle fiery substance, pneuma or spirit, the same substance from which the sun, the stars, and the other gods are made.  The human mind, indeed, is a divine spark, a fragment of the Logos or cosmic fire that constitutes the Mind of Zeus.

Marcus continually reminds himself that the human mind has a duty to fulfil its own true nature, to become rational and wise, and not to be distracted or swayed from its path, something he likes to compare to the simplicity and purity with which the sun and stars shine forth in the sky.¬† He says the sun does not undertake the work of the rain but fulfills its own nature.¬† Each particular star is different from the others and yet they are all working together toward the same end (6.43).¬† We should strive to do the same by cultivating the divine spark within us, fulfilling our human potential for wisdom and virtue.¬† Everything in nature has come into being for a purpose.¬† According to Marcus, the Sun himself would say, ‚ÄėI was born to perform a function‚Äô, and so would the rest of the gods (8.19).¬† So it’s likewise our duty to know what our own true purpose is in life, something we try to discover through philosophy, the love of wisdom.

Marcus likes to refer to the stars as natural models of purity and simplicity.  We should meditate, he says, on the the stars above as though accompanying them on their course through the night sky because thoughts such as these purify us from the defilements of our earthly existence (7.47).  Even though the stars are separate and distinct they also form a natural unity together in the constellations of the night sky (9.9).

Marcus particularly attributes this idea of contemplating the orderliness and purity of the stars to the Pythagoreans, about whom Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, had long ago written a book.

The Pythagoreans used to say that, first thing in the morning, we should look up at the sky, to remind ourselves of beings who forever accomplish their work according to the same laws and in an unvarying fashion, and to remind ourselves too of their orderliness, purity, and nakedness; for nothing veils a star. (11.27)

The Pythagoreans believed that the stars and other heavenly bodies were divine.  (They appear to move all by themselves, which to many ancient thinkers was a sign of life.)  For Stoics they were gods but also merely fragmentary aspects of a greater divine Nature, or Zeus.

The Mind as the Sun

However, the nature of sunlight in particular becomes an important metaphor for the Stoic concept of mind throughout The Meditations.¬† Marcus repeatedly stresses to himself that the light of the sun pours down in every direction and yet it is not exhausted.¬† Its beams of light are merely an extension of its being.¬† Sunlight is something very familiar to us.¬† We see its beams entering a darkened room through a narrow window.¬† It stretches out in a straight line and comes to rest on any solid body that intercepts it, cutting it off from¬† whatever lies beyond.¬† Sunlight appears to our eyes to rest exactly where its rays fall, without being deflected by its objects, like the wind, or being absorbed by them like water.¬† It touches upon things lightly and illuminates them, without being contaminated by them.¬† The pouring forth and spreading abroad of our mind should follow a similar pattern, extending itself without being exhausted or diminished.¬† It should, like sunlight, not land with the force of a violent blow on the obstacles that it encounters nor dissipate, but steadily illuminate the objects before it.¬† For what doesn’t welcome the light condemns itself to darkness (8.57).

Put very simply, I think Marcus would say today that we should think of our judgements, particularly our value judgements, as beams of light shining forth from our mind onto objects in the world.¬† Values don’t exist in the world, we project them onto things.¬† For the Stoics it’s therefore important to be aware of this and suspend these judgements or make them only lightly.¬† Marcus consistently refers to this as the purification of the mind from being blended with externals, or its separation from things that belong to the world, or to the body.

From a more metaphysical perspective, Marcus reminds himself that sunlight is, in a sense, a single thing even though it is obstructed by walls, and mountains, and countless other obstacles.  Likewise, for Stoic Physics, there is one common substance, though divided into countless individual bodies. There is one mind, even though it appears to be divided among countless creatures, each with its own characteristics. Material objects are senseless and have no affinity of this kind.  But mind alone is naturally social, it tends towards what is akin to it and forms friendships and communities with others, and apparent divisions are overcome by the sense of common fellowship (12.30).

Likewise, he elsewhere says that one animal soul is distributed among irrational creatures, and one rational soul has been divided among rational creatures; just as there is one earth for all things formed from earth, and there is one light by which we all see and one air from which we all breathe (9.8).¬† Fire tends to rise toward the heavens, with which it has an affinity, consuming whatever kindling is thrown upon it.¬† So likewise, the mind naturally strives with even greater eagerness towards what is akin to itself, through the grasping of philosophical truths (9.9).¬† The mind naturally loves virtue, and as social beings we aspire to make friends and form communities with other human beings, who share our capacity for reason.¬† This is the bond of natural affection that Stoics believe exists between all rational beings, and which it’s our duty to cultivate into a sense of being at one with the rest of mankind, viewing them as our brothers and sisters, and fellow citizens of the cosmic city.

Virtue as Sunlight or a Blazing Fire

Marcus also likes to describe virtue as a light blazing forth.  A good, straightforward, and kindly person, he says, reveals these qualities in his eyes, they shine forth unmistakably in his gaze (11.15).  In the mind of one who has been chastened and thoroughly purified, perhaps by Stoic mentoring and therapy, there nothing he says which would not bear examination or which hides away from the light (3.8).

Hence, there is nothing more wholesome and delightful, he says, than the sight of virtue shining forth in the characters of those around us.  So we should be sure to keep these images ever at hand (6.48).  Indeed, virtue is just like the light of a lamp which shines forth until it is extinguished, light extends itself afar without losing its radiance.  In the same way, the cardinal virtues of truth, justice and self-control should shine forth without being exhausted (12.15).

Moreover, the mind of the wise man is like a blazing fire.¬† All things human are mere smoke and nothingness, they continually change and then are gone forever. Don’t be troubled about them, Marcus says, but view life as a training ground for reason to examine things truthfully and objectively.¬† The mind is naturally capable of assimilating the truth about everything that befalls you just as a robust stomach assimilates every kind of food and a blazing fire turns whatever you cast into it into flame and light (10.31).

The preconceptions Nature planted within our souls are like sparks of wisdom, which need to be given fuel and fanned into a blazing fire.  Hence, Marcus says the sparks of his Stoic principles need to be constantly fanned into new flames, such as that things that lie outside our intellect have no hold whatever over us.  Once you renew these principles, which once you knew, then you will cease to be troubled, he says (7.2).

People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside, by the seashore, in the hills ‚Äďa theme he returns to several times.¬† You can retreat into yourself wherever you are and remember your Stoic principles, though.¬† When your mind is in harmony with nature, it adapts itself readily to whatever befalls it.¬† It’s not attached to any specific thing but rather prefers whatever is reasonable, and with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind.¬† If it encounters an obstacle, it simply converts that into more material for the exercise of reason and virtue, much like a fire when it masters the things that fall into it.¬† Piling up too much wood often extinguishes a little flame, but a blazing fire engulfs it all in an instant, and consumes it, making its flames burn even higher (4.1).

The Empedoclean Sphere

Marcus also makes very similar remarks about the mystical “sphere” of the presocratic philosopher Empdocles, who was closely associated with the Pythagoreans.¬† This sphere represents the divine in perfect harmony but the mind of the wise man possesses similar qualities.

For if, supported on thy steadfast mind, thou wilt contemplate these things with good intent and faultless care, then shalt thou have all these things in abundance throughout thy life, and thou shalt gain many others from them. For these things grow of themselves into thy heart, where is each man’s true nature. But if thou strivest after things of another kind, as it is the way with men that ten thousand sorry matters blunt their careful thoughts, soon will these things desert thee when the time comes round; for they long to return once more to their own kind; for know that all things have wisdom and a share of thought. (Fr. 110)

Marcus likewise says that we have a body and feelings that our ours to take care of but only our intellect is truly our own.¬† You will live a pure and unrestricted life if you will let go of everything that falls outside your own true nature, doing what is just, desiring what befalls you, and speaking the truth.¬† If, that is, you will purify your ruling centre from everything external that becomes attached to it from the body, and everything in the past or future.¬† Make yourself, in Empedocles‚Äô words, as Marcus puts it, “a well-rounded sphere rejoicing in the solitude around it”, striving to live only the life that belongs to¬†you here and now, then you will live out the rest of your days with peace and kindness, at peace with the divine spark within you (12.3).

Marcus appears to refer to this image of the Empedoclean sphere three times altogether.¬† Elsewhere, he notes that neither fire, nor steel, nor a tyrant, nor abuse, can affect the mind in any way when it has become a ‚Äėwell-rounded sphere‚Äô, and it is capable of always remaining so (8.41).

Finally, he says that the sphere of the soul remains true to its natural form  when neither stretching itself out towards anything outside itself nor contracting itself inwards, and when it is neither dispersed abroad nor shrinks back into itself, but shines forth with a steady light by which it sees the truth of all things and the truth within itself (11.12).  Here, the image of the Empedoclean sphere appears to merge with that of the sun shining its pure light onto objects without being defiled by them.

The poet Horace, in Satires (2.7), employs the same image of the perfect sphere in relation to Stoicism.  He describes a speech delivered to him during the festival of Saturnalia by his own slave, Davus, who had learned Stoicism from a servant of the (perhaps fictional) Stoic philosopher and poet Crispinus.

Who then is free?  The wise man who is master of himself,
who remains undaunted in the face of poverty, chains and death,
who stubbornly defies his passions and despises positions of power,
a man complete in himself, smooth and round, who prevents
extraneous elements clinging to his polished surface, who is such
that when Fortune attacks him she maims only herself.


New Stoicism T-Shirt

New Stoic t-shirt design based on a quote from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

T ShirtTo celebrate Stoic Week 2017 and the Stoicon conference on modern Stoicism in Toronto, we have created this new t-shirt.

The design consists of the Owl of Athena perched on a skull, symbolizing philosophy and mortality ‚Äď a memento mori. ¬†The quote from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius underneath reads: “The cosmos, change; life, opinion”. ¬†The material universe is constantly changing, and impermanent. The quality of our lives is determined by our beliefs, particularly our value judgements.

You can pre-order yours now and we’ll ship it out to you after Stoic Week finishes on 23rd October. ¬†Currently only available in black but sizes between small and x-large can be selected.

Choose size:
T Shirts

Last Chance to Enrol on my New Stoicism Course!

Last chance to enrol on my new How to Think Like a Roman Emperor online course.

Hi everyone,

Utere non reditura.
Use the hour, it will not come again.

Today is your last chance to enrol on How to Think Like a Roman Emperor!

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Remember, if you enrol on this pilot version of the course, you’ll be receiving¬†$50 discount off the standard price, including e-learning and live webinars. You’ll also have access to any future updates or improvements, via lifetime access. I’m also providing a¬†bonus live webinar¬†to people taking part in the first course.

If you’re interested but have questions, please feel free to get in touch. (I get loads of emails from people about courses and answer all of them personally.)

Thanks once again for your support and feedback, and I look forward to seeing you in person on the course!

Warm regards,

Donald Robertson signature

Donald Robertson

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Forthcoming course about the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius.

I’m pleased to announce that my brand new e-learning course, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, will finally begin enrolling in a few weeks time.

I’ve been developing this course for the past six months and now it’s nearly ready for publication. ¬†It’s been a labour of love. ¬†For many years I’ve wanted to run a course about the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius and I think the time is right now.

You can visit the main course page below although you won’t be able to enrol until the course is published in a few weeks’ time:

I’ve been delivering online courses for over a decade, including the huge Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training courses, in which about ten thousand people from around the world have participated so far. ¬†This will be the first time that I’ve actually created a paid course, though. ¬†I made the decision to charge for Roman Emperor for the simple reason that it allows me to be able to put enough time into research and course design to make sure I’m completely satisfied with the end result.

If you want to receive updates on the course and be notified when it’s available just enter your details below:

I believe that the best way to teach Stoicism is by focusing on a specific example of a real Stoic. Marcus Aurelius is, today, by far the most famous of the Stoics, and we know more about him than any of the others. So this course will explore Stoicism and its relevance today by taking Marcus as our role model, and looking at examples from his life. It lasts four weeks and is divided into four broad phases of Marcus’ life, and four broad areas of Stoic philosophy. We’re particularly going to look at the psychological practices found in Stoicism and what we can learn from Marcus about applying these in daily life, to improve our character, find meaning in life, and become more emotionally resilient.

I’m not going to go into too much detail right now because I’ll be announcing more later. ¬†If you’re interested, though, stay tuned, as I’ll soon have a lot more to say about How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. ¬†

Please make sure you add your email address to the list above, though, so that you don’t miss out on the announcements. ¬†Thanks once again for your support!

Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism, and Mithraism

Some notes on Marcus Aurelius and Mithraism.

mithraeumThese are just some rough notes on Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism and Mithras.  My hypothesis is that Marcus Aurelius may have been initiated into the mystery religion of Mithraism.

Marcus would certainly have been familiar with Mithraism. ¬†It was extremely popular during his reign, particularly with the army and merchants. ¬†His adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, constructed a Temple to Mithras at the port of Ostia, just outside¬†Rome. ¬†(Numerous mithrea have now been uncovered at Ostia.) ¬†So arguably it seems likely Pius would have been made an initiate of Mithraism, although perhaps just as a political gesture. ¬†We are also told in the Historia Augusta¬†that Marcus’¬†son Commodus was initiated into Mithraism.

He [Commodus] desecrated the rites of Mithra with actual murder, although it was customary in them merely to say or pretend something that would produce an impression of terror.

The historian Michael Grant wrote of Commodus:

Thus he appears as Mithras, wearing the cosmic skull-cap, on an inlaid bronze and gilt bust (which is in the Victoria and Albert museum in London).  The dying [Marcus] Aurelius had declared Commodus the Rising Sun, the Rising Sun of a New World, and amid increasing Sun-worship Sol is given the features of Commodus [on coinage].  This fitted in well with the cult of Mithras, by now the largest missionary force in paganism (Ostia had revealed its enormous popularity).  (Grant, The Antonines)

Commodus as MithrasIndeed, late in his reign Commodus adopted Invictus as one of his many titles, apparently styling himself after the Mithraic sun god Sol Invictus.

Some scholars believed that this was a Roman bust of Commodus, dated c. 190 AD, clearly depicting him as Mithras, wearing a Phrygian cap.¬† ¬†However, the Victoria and Albert Museum no longer believe it was intended to be a likeness of Commodus.¬† However, on the other hand, the British Museum do possess a coin minted during Commodus’ reign with his image clearly displayed on one face and that of a man wearing a Phrygian cap, adorned with stars and a crescent moon on the other side, which appears to be a depiction of either Mithras himself or the related Phrygian lunar deity called Men.

Commodus Mithras Coin

So we can probably infer that Marcus’ father, who built a temple to Mithras, was an initiate of Mithraism whereas Cassius Dio tells us that Marcus’ son Commodus was one. ¬†What we don’t know for sure is whether¬†Marcus was initiated into Mithraism himself, although arguably it seems very likely that he was. ¬†Marcus was enrolled in all four of the traditional Roman priestly colleges as a young Caesar and he also took his official role as high priest very seriously. ¬†Later in life, when he toured Athens, he made a point of being¬†initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. ¬†He had far more opportunity and motivation, though, to be initiated into the mystery religion of Mithraism, as we’ll see.

At Carnuntum, the legionary fort where Marcus spent most of his time during the Marcomannic Wars, lasting over a decade, archaeologists have unearthed six Temples to Mithras. ¬†The modern-day museum at Carnuntum contains an impressive reconstruction of a mithraeum. It’s believed Carnuntum was a location of special importance to the cult. ¬†Indeed, Mithraism was particularly associated with the legions posted along the Danube, where Marcus stationed himself for most of his reign. ¬†Porphyry says that Mithras was depicted armed with the “sword of Aries, which is a sign¬†of Mars”, and therefore a military symbol.

Unsurprisingly for a cult so popular with the military, it’s believed that Mithraism strongly encouraged loyalty to the emperor, the supreme commander of the Roman legions, who was in fact appointed by the army to rule. ¬†Several inscriptions describe Mithras as protector or patron of the empire. ¬†It would therefore appear¬†more important for Marcus to show his support for Mithraism by being initiated while at Carnuntum, than to be initiated into the Eleusianian Mysteries, which we know he did as soon as the first war was concluded and he was able to visit Greece.

However, as far as I’m aware there are no surviving depictions of Marcus containing Mithraic imagery, except perhaps a coin like that of Commodus above depicting a figure in a Phrygian cap with a crescent, who may be either Mithras or the similar-looking lunar deity called Men.

Marcus Aurelius Mithras Coin

Contemplation of the Stars

Unfortunately, because the cult was shrouded in secrecy virtually no written information survives about it today, despite all the archaeological evidence. ¬†The image above shows a modern reconstruction of a mithraeum or temple of the god Mithras. ¬†Numerous chambers such as this, traditionally referred to as “caves”, although often constructed as long narrow sunken halls, have been found throughout the Roman empire. ¬†The Temples to Mithras¬†were normally filled with astrological symbolism and its believed the ceilings were painted with the constellations, and intended to look like the night sky. ¬†If Marcus stepped into one of the many mithraea at Carnuntum, which seems very likely indeed given the amount of time he spent there, he would have found himself in a mystical atmosphere, surrounded by stars, an image that’s bound to remind us of this passage from The Meditations:

Contemplate the course of the stars, as if you were going alongside them.  And constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another.  Because such thoughts purge away the impurity of life on earth. (Meditations, 7.47)

Likewise, Marcus elsewhere says:

The Pythagoreans bid us in the morning look to the heavens that we may be reminded of those bodies which continually do the same things and in the same manner perform their work, and also be reminded of their purity and nudity. For there is no veil over a star. (Meditations, 11.27)

Although Marcus nowhere refers to Mithras, he must surely have seen the obvious relevance of these comments to the symbolism of the mithraea and the initiations that took place there. ¬†The neoplatonist Porphyry wrote that “the cave bore the image of the cosmos, which Mithras had created, and the things contained in the cave, by their proportionate arrangement, provided symbols of the elements and climates of the cosmos” (On the Cave of the Nymphs).

Mithras and the Sun God

Mithras himself was either a sun god or associate of the sun god, sometimes equated with¬†Sol Invictus¬†who was also popular as a patron of the Roman army. ¬†His¬†two torch-bearing companions,¬†Cautes and Cautopates, are believed to symbolise the stations of the rising and setting sun. ¬†Cautes holds his torch raised up, and Cautopates holds his torch pointed downward. ¬†According to Cassius Dio, on his deathbed, Marcus reputedly said¬†“Go to the rising sun; I am already setting.” ¬†To the many¬†followers of Mithras among his legions on the Danube, that must surely have sounded like an allusion to the symbolism of their cult, as Grant notes in the passage cited earlier.¬† More generally the pair are taken to denote¬†the cycles of nature, through which opposites such as day and night, life and death, succeed one another. ¬†Many references to this theme of cyclical change can be found in The Meditations,¬†although it is also common¬†in philosophical literature generally.

The Bull-Slaying (Tauroctony)

Marcus Aurelius Bull SlayingThe central image of Mithraism is that of the god Mithras slaying a bull, which is the focal point of each mithraeum. ¬†Scholars refer to this characteristic Mithraic image as the tauroctony. ¬†We do know that the bull is sacrificial because some of the depictions show it dressed in a conventional Roman sacrificial blanket. ¬†The relief shown here depicts Marcus Aurelius presiding at the ritual sacrifice of a bull, although it probably pertains to one of the conventional state cults of Rome. ¬†There’s no evidence that real bull-sacrifice actually formed part of Mithraism. ¬†As far as we know the bull-slaying in Mithraism was purely symbolic.

The image of the bull was also very important to Stoicism.  It can be found in the Stoic writings of Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, used as a metaphor for the good man.  The Republic of Zeno, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, apparently described the ideal society as like a herd of cattle feeding in a common pasture and later Stoics frequently refer to the image of the Stoic hero as a mighty bull protecting the rest of his herd.  Marcus refers to himself as emperor, as a bull set over the herd.  The bull was also the sacred animal of the eastern city of Tarsus, which was the home of many famous Stoics and reputedly also the home of Mithraism.  Some scholars believe there are links between the Stoics of Tarsus and the cult of Mithras.

Aion: Eternity

leontocephalusIn addition to the images of Mithras, these temples often include depictions of a mysterious lion-headed figure, wrapped in a serpent, called leontocephalus by scholars.

It’s believed he represents universal¬†time and corresponds with the Hellenistic deity called Aion, or Eternity. ¬†We also know Antoninus Pius minted several coins carrying the name AION¬†as a dedication,¬†adding to his links¬†with the cult.

Indeed, the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius, which was erected by Marcus Aurelius in his honour, is thought to depict the god Aion.  He is shown in the apotheosis scene, carrying Antoninus and his wife Faustina to heaven.

Marcus refers very frequently to the vastness of time, in some of the most obviously mystical passages of The Meditations.  He uses the Greek word AION twenty times altogether.  Sometimes he even appears to personify the concept, such as in the following striking passage:

How many a Chrysippus, how many a Socrates, how many an Epictetus, has Aion already swallowed up! (7.19)


I initially left this passage out of the article because as far as I can see Vermaseren is the only author to make this claim:

There are some well-known monuments associated with Mithras in the pirates’ homeland in the mountainous religions of Cilicia, and recently an altar was discovered in Anazarbos which had been consecrated by Marcus Aurelius as ‘Priest and Father of Zeus-Helios-Mithras’. (Mithras, the Secret God, M.J. Vermaseren, London, 1963)

As I understand it, the inscription on this altar is damaged and has been read by other experts in a completely different way, not as a reference to Marcus Aurelius.

However, if Vermaseren were correct about the¬†inscription on this altar being consecrated by Marcus Aurelius as “Priest and Father of Zeus-Helios-Mithras”, that would directly¬†support my hypothesis that Marcus was an initiate of Mithraism. ¬†Indeed, it would go even further and provide evidence that he was actually a consecrated priest of the cult. ¬†The equation of Mithras and Helios is typical but making him synonymous with Zeus would be particularly interesting in relation to Marcus’ Stoicism.

Marcus Aurelius at the Amphitheatre

Description of Marcus Aurelius at the amphitheatre and circus, observing the games, and how he tried to use this as an opportunity to rehearse his practice of Stoic philosophy.

GladiatorsAs a young man Marcus himself was fond of boxing and wrestling.  He was fit enough to spear wild boars from horseback, and to practice fighting in armour.  However, some said that as he became more committed to his studies of literature and philosophy, he neglected his body, and these sort of activities, and so gradually became less physically fit and strong, and less interested in watching the games and races.  As a child, his first tutor taught him that it was wise not to take the side of the Green Jacket or the Blue in the races, or to back the light-shield champion or the heavy-shield in the lists, and so on (1.5).  His brother Lucius was completely caught up in these tribal attitudes about the races and games but to Marcus it was an absurd distraction from his duties as emperor.

He came to loathe the amphitheatre and similar public spectacles but felt obliged to attend, at the insistence of his friends and advisors.  Marcus was so averse to the thought of unnecessary bloodshed that when the audience insisted that a lion that had been trained to devour humans should be brought into the arena he refused to look at it.  The people demanded that the lion-trainer should be made a citizen and frequently protested about this but Marcus, who was normally in favour of greater enfranchisement of slaves, refused and even had it publicly proclaimed that the man had done nothing to deserve his freedom.  Indeed, it was said he restricted the gladiatorial games in many ways.  He insisted that the gladiators before him would use blunted weapons, fighting like athletes, without any risk to their lives.  He likewise introduced a law requiring that the young entertainers who danced on tightropes should be given safety nets, to prevent any of them being injured.

Later, during the first Marcomannic War, at the height of the plague, Marcus was forced to take emergency measures to replace lost troops and defend Rome against the barbarian incursions.  He recruited gladiators, taking them away from the arena, arming them and calling them The Compliant.  When he did this there was unrest among the people who complained that he was going to take away their entertainment and drive them all to the study of philosophy.  He was careful not to openly criticise their crass tastes but nevertheless it was well-known that he looked down on such things, and some people resented him for doing so.

They openly ridiculed him as a snob and a bore because they could clearly see¬†that though present at the circus¬†he was ignoring the games to read documents and discuss them with his advisors. ¬†Marcus was told¬†he had to show his face at¬†these events, to keep the Roman people happy, but the entertainments¬†bored him and he wanted to use the time instead to address the serious business of running the state. ¬†Though¬†he would allow himself to be persuaded to go to the games, and theatre, and hunting, etc., ¬†his heart was no longer in these pursuits. ¬†Even his close friend, his rhetoric tutor, Fronto tells Marcus that he’d criticized him in this way:

On occasion, in your absence, I have criticized you in quite severe terms in front of a small circle of my most intimate friends. There was a time when I would do so, for instance, when you entered public gatherings with a more gloomy expression than was fitting, or pored over a book at the theatre or during a banquet (I am speaking of a time when I myself did not yet keep away from theatres and banquets). On such occasions, then, I would call you an insensitive man who failed to act as circumstances demanded, or sometimes even, in an impulse of anger, a disagreeable person.

When required to attend, Marcus tried to make best use of the situation by treating it as an opportunity to practice contemplative exercises, viewing the games he observed as spiritual metaphors, through the lens of Stoic philosophy.  Although the crowds were addicted to them, the shows seemed very monotonous to him so he contemplated their tedious and repetitive nature as symbolising the whole of human life.  There’s nothing new under the sun.  Everything is familiar, from the Stoic perspective (6.46).  Different fighters and animals enter the arena but fundamentally it’s the same thing over and over again.  Every day our lives are superficially different but from a deeper perspective, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we’re still facing the same fundamental challenges.  Pain and suffering may take countless different forms but the wise man is still faced with the same basic challenge of enduring them.  Marcus tells himself:

Remaining no better than you are and allowing yourself to be torn apart by such a life is worthy of a foolish and greedy man, and resembles the life of the wild-beast fighters who are half-devoured in the arena, who through a mass of wounds and gore, beg to be kept until the next day, only to be thrown again, though wounded, into the arena, to be rent by the same teeth and claws. (10.8)

Marcus himself had boxed and wrestled as a youth and was particularly interested how the violent sport known as pankration, which combined boxing, wrestling, kicking and choking, could serve as an allegory for life.  As he watched the pankratiasts, for example, he told himself that life is more like wrestling than dancing because we have to be ready to stand unshaken against every assault, no matter how unforeseen (7.61).

Elsewhere, Marcus seems to draw on his personal experience of wrestling as an analogy for coping with challenging people in life generally, without taking offence at their behaviour.

In the gymnasium, someone may have scratched us with his nails or have collided with us and struck us a blow with his head, but, for all that, we do not mark him down as a bad character, or take offence, or view him with suspicion afterwards as one who wishes us ill. To be sure, we remain on our guard, but not in a hostile spirit or with undue suspicion; we simply try to avoid him in an amicable fashion. So let us behave in much the same way in other areas of life: let us make many allowances for those who are, so to speak, the companions of our exercises. For it is possible, as I have said, to avoid them, and yet to view them neither with suspicion nor hatred. (6.20)

We can also learn something about how to deal with overwhelming events from the training of these sportsmen:

Analyze a piece of music into its notes and ask yourself of each in isolation: ‚ÄúDoes this overpower me?‚ÄĚ ¬†The same is true in the pankration; if you analyze the fight into each individual move, it will seem less overwhelming. ¬†Do this with everything except with the good, with virtue. ¬†But ¬†dissect all external things objectively, into smaller parts, until they lose their power over your mind (11.2).

Indeed, Marcus tells himself that in his use of Stoic philosophical doctrines, he should imitate the pankratiasts, who box and wrestle, rather than the gladiators.  The gladiator lays aside the sword he uses, and picks it up again.  But the barehanded fighter is always armed and needs only to clench his fist. (12.9)

Marcus had trained in painting as a youth, indeed it was his painting teacher Diognetus who introduced him to philosophy.  So with the eye of a painter he also considers how beauty can be found even in these tiresome spectacles, such as the wild beasts released against the animal-fighters.  

Gladiator Tiger

The byproducts of natural processes have a particular type of charm when viewed in the right context, as part of something greater.  The cracks that appear when bread is baked are like random flaws but stimulate our appetite.  Even the furrowed brow of an angry lion in the arena, or the foam dripping from a wild-boar’s jaws during a hunt, are not things of beauty when viewed in isolation, but as part of a magnificent creature, they lend something to its overall appearance.  The wise man sees beauty in all things, even if it is only as a byproduct of something else’s beauty.  He will even look on the fearsome gaping jaws of real wild beasts with no less pleasure than the representations of them in works of art by painters and sculptors.  There are many such things that the foolish cannot appreciate but in which the wise can learn to distinguish a different kind of aesthetic value (3.2.1-2).  Indeed, all things come from the same source, from Nature, even the terrifying jaws of the lion and such things are but side-effects of the grand and beautiful.  So do not be alienated even from these things but see them as part of the whole, and originating in the one source of all things (6.36.2).

This is how Marcus passes his time at these events.  As a Stoic, his duty is to try to respond with wisdom and virtue in even the most banal environment, even when bored and confronted with something that seems the opposite of edifying to him.  He does this by making meaning from the situation, like an artist, viewing the fighters and the animals as expressing something greater and more noble, providing him with a way to reconnect with his spiritual and philosophical values, and to transcend the mediocrity of his surroundings, and to rise above the clamour of the baying crowd that surround him.  In later years, on campaign in the northern frontier, he would use some of the same mental strategies that he’d been rehearsing for years trapped in his seat at the circus, to retain his composure when faced with the real horrors of war.

Marcus Aurelius: The Education of a Philosopher

Some notes on what we learn about Stoicism from Marcus Aurelius’ teachers, and what he says he admired most about them.

Bust of Young Marcus AureliusWhat did Marcus Aurelius learn from his Stoic teachers?  We have many references to his philosophical teachers, especially Stoics, who provided him with living role-models of virtue.  So what did he find most praiseworthy and admirable in these men?  Marcus tells us, in particular, that they provided him with examples of integrity, patience, and self-mastery, but also cheerfulness, kindness, gentleness and forgiveness, all of which were also important Stoic traits.

The opening sentence of the Historia Augusta states that Marcus Aurelius ‚Äúthroughout his whole life, was a man devoted to philosophy and was a man who surpassed all emperors in the integrity of his life.‚ÄĚ ¬†We‚Äôre told he¬†was an earnest child who, as soon as he was old enough to be handed over from the care of his nurses to ‚Äúnotable instructors‚ÄĚ, embarked on his study of philosophy.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy. ¬†When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance ‚Äď studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground. ¬†However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins. ¬†He was also tutored by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic philosopher [‚Ķ]

These were the typical attire and practices of philosophers in the ancient Socratic tradition, particularly the Cynics and Stoics. ¬†As we’ll see below, Marcus himself suggests the idea for sleeping on a camp-bed and adopting other aspects of the “Greek training” came from Diognetus, his painting tutor. ¬†Marcus was seventeen years old when Antoninus Pius adopted him into the imperial family, so it’s implied that at this age he was already studying Stoicism under Apollonius of Chalcedon. ¬†The history continues:

Furthermore, his zeal for philosophy was so great that, even after he joined the imperial family, he still used to go to Apollonius‚Äô house for instruction. ¬†He also attended the lectures of Sextus of Chaeronea (Plutarch‚Äôs nephew), Junius Rusticus, Claudius Maximus and Cinna Catulus ‚Äď all Stoics. ¬†He went to lectures by Claudius Severus too, as he was attracted to the Peripatetic School. ¬†But it was chiefly Junius Rusticus, whom he admired and followed ‚Äď a man acclaimed in both private and public life and extremely well practised in the Stoic discipline.

Marcus praises his Stoic teachers’ virtues in the first chapter of The Meditations but here we’re also told that he held them in such high esteem that he kept gold portraits of them in his private shrine and honoured their tombs with personal visits, offering flowers and sacrifices to their memory.  We know something about most of these men, with the exception of the Stoic Cinna Catulus.

At the end of Book 1, Marcus¬†thanks the gods “That I got to know Apollonius, Rusticus, Maximus”, all three of whom were Stoic teachers. ¬†It’s typically presumed by scholars that these were his three most significant teachers. Marcus also studied Platonism under Alexander of Seleucia, known as Peloplaton¬†(“Clay Plato”), and Aristotelianism under Claudius Severus. ¬†There’s no mention of any specific¬†Epicurean teacher, although Marcus was apparently familiar with Epicurean writings.


Marcus said, intriguingly, that his painting tutor, Diognetus, showed him:

[…] not to resent plain speaking [parrh√™sia]; and to become familiar with philosophy and be a hearer first of Baccheius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; and to write dialogues as a boy; and to set my heart on a camp bed and a pelt and whatever else accords with the Greek training [ag√īg√™].(Meditations, 1.6)

We don’t know who Tandasis or Marcianus were. ¬†Baccheius may be the Platonic philosopher Bacchius of Paphos, about whom little more is known. ¬†The allusion to philosophy here naturally suggests that parrh√™sia may be used in the sense associated with the Cynic philosophers’ way of life, of which it was a central element. ¬†Although this is merely an impression the passage gives, it’s reinforced by the reference to¬†sleeping on a military-style camp bed, under a crude pelt, which some scholars have taken to be a reference to the Spartan ag√īg√™, elements of which were assimilated into the Cynic and Stoic lifestyle. ¬†Unfortunately, however, beyond this cryptic reference, we know nothing of Diognetus, or the three lecturers¬†to whom he referred Marcus. ¬†It’s striking that this passage refers to philosophy, though, and is followed by passages in honour of Marcus’ main¬†philosophy tutors.

Junius Rusticus

From Rusticus, to become aware of the fact that I needed correction and training [therapeia] for my character; and not to be turned aside into an zealous sophistry; nor compose speculative treatises, or deliver little sermons, or try to show off being an ascetic or unselfish man; and to eschew rhetoric, poetry, and fine language; and not to go about the house in my robes, or commit any such breach of good taste and to write letters without affectation, like his own letter written to my mother from Sinuessa; to shew oneself ready to be reconciled to those who have lost their temper and trespassed against one, and ready to meet them halfway as soon as they seem to be willing to retrace their steps; to read with minute care and not to be content with a superficial overview; nor to be too quick in agreeing with every chatterbox; and to make the acquaintance of the Memoirs of Epictetus, which he supplied me with out of his own library. (Meditations, 1.7)

Statue of Young Marcus AureliusThe Stoic Junius Rusticus was Marcus’ most important teacher. ¬†The book of Epictetus that Marcus refers to here as¬†as “memoir” or notes must surely be the Discourses we know today, which he quotes elsewhere. ¬†However, there were originally eight Discourses, of which only four survive today. ¬†So it’s possible that Marcus had also read the lost books of Epictetus. ¬†Marcus was aged around fourteen when Epictetus died, and it’s unlikely the two ever met. ¬†However, Junius Rusticus was aged around thirty-five and so it’s tempting to speculate that he’d met and studied with Epictetus and later communicated his philosophical teachings to Marcus, along with a copy of the Discourses from his personal library.

Marcus mentions that it was from Rusticus he learned that his own character needed correction. ¬†That’s important because one of the most psychologically significant roles of a philosophical mentor, especially in Stoicism, was to act as a sort of mirror to younger students and help them become aware of their own blind-spots. ¬†Galen, for example, wrote at length about the necessity of having a wise teacher to provide this kind of insight because we’re naturally oblivious to our own prejudices and character flaws.

He also learned from Rusticus to avoid becoming lost in sophistry or useless philosophical speculation, something Epictetus never tires of warning his students against.  Again, Marcus admires Rusticus for avoiding too much rhetoric and for his plain speaking, like Diognetus.

Intriguingly, when Marcus writes that Rusticus provides a good example of how to be willingly reconciled to those who have lost their temper with you, he may well be referring to his own short-fuse. ¬†Marcus elsewhere¬†thanks the gods “that, though often offended with Rusticus, I never went so far as to do anything for which I should have been sorry” (Meditations, 1.17). ¬†Perhaps Rusticus was sometimes too blunt in his moral criticisms of the young Marcus and provoked him to anger, but was willing to compromise and be reconciled if Marcus was willing to reconsider his actions.

Apollonius of Chalcedon

The Historia Augusta suggests¬†that Apollonius of Chalcedon was Marcus’ first philosophy teacher and that he saw him before being adopted into the imperial family of Antoninus Pius, aged seventeen, and continued to study with him thereafter.

From Apollonius I learned freedom and unwavering caution; and to focus on nothing else, even for a moment, except reason; and to be always the same, in acute pain, on losing a child, and in long illness; and to see vividly through a living role-model that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the least of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favours, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed. (Meditations, 1.8)

The start of this passage can be read as referring to Stoic mindfulness, or Apollonius showing continual attention to his own ruling-faculty and to reason. ¬†What does it mean to be simultaneously both resolute and yielding, or willing to let go? ¬†This could be read as a reference to the famous Stoic “reserve clause”: the Stoic is totally committed to doing what is up to him, or acting virtuously, but he seeks external things lightly, with the caveat that they may go otherwise.

Sextus of Chaeronea

Sextus of Chaeronea was the nephew of the famous Platonic philosopher Plutarch.  According to Philostratus, Marcus was still attending lectures by Sextus late in life, perhaps around 177 AD, after the rebellion of Avidius Cassius, and before he returned to the northern frontier.

The Emperor Marcus was an eager disciple of Sextus the Boeotian philosopher, being often in his company and frequenting his house. Lucius, who had just come to Rome, asked the Emperor, whom he met on his way, where he was going to and on what errand, and Marcus answered, “it is good even for an old man to learn; I am now on my way to Sextus the philosopher to learn what I do not yet know.” And Lucius, raising his hand to heaven, said, “O Zeus, the king of the Romans in his old age takes up his tablets and goes to school.”

Marcus writes of him in The Meditations:

From Sextus, kindness [eumenes], and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the concept of living in accord with nature; and a serious demeanour without affectation, and to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration: he had the power of readily accommodating himself to all, so that conversations with him were more agreeable than any flattery; and at the same time he was most highly revered by those who associated with him: and he had the faculty both of discovering and organizing, in an intelligent and methodical way, the principles [dogmas] necessary for life; and he never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion and yet full of natural affection; and he could express his approval without a noisy display, and he possessed much knowledge without being pretentious. (Meditations, 1.9)

The references to Stoic terminology in this passage are striking. ¬†Sextus showed Marcus the virtuous Stoic feeling of kindness (eumenes)¬†and what it really means to “live in accord with nature”, the Stoic goal of life. ¬†He also showed him what it means to reconcile Stoic indifference (apatheia) with natural affection (philostorgia).

Claudius Maximus

Claudius Maximus¬†is mentioned later than the other Stoic teachers, although it’s believed he died around 161 AD the same year Marcus became emperor. ¬†He was a Roman politician, who served as consul, governor of Pannonia Superior, and then proconsul of Africa. ¬†Marcus mentions the death of Maximus and his wife briefly in The Meditations (8.25).

From Maximus I learned self-mastery, and not to be turned aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a good-tempered character combining gentleness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I noticed that everybody felt he believed in what he said, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his frustration, neither, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious. He was accustomed to do things for the benefit of others, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he gave the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right rather than of a man who had been set right. I saw, too, that no man could ever either think that he was looked down upon by Maximus or think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable way. (Meditations, 1.15)

Marcus begins by referring to Maximus’ as a model of Stoic self-mastery (enkrateia) and focus on the goal of living rationally. ¬†He was cheerful in all circumstances, not gloomy as some people imagine Stoics. ¬†He was sincere and authentic but gentle and honourable in his dealings with others, whom he always sought to help. ¬†He was never surprised or shocked by anything, things the Stoics took to be a sign of philosophical naivety. ¬†What he says about Maximus being someone whom one imagines could never be turned astray rather than having to be set on the right path, is recalled later in The Meditations (3.5), where he writes “You should¬†stand upright, not be set upright.”